Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Make great bread in your own oven

The other day I was in the supermarket, looking for my favourite strong flour (baker's flour), when I overheard a couple in their fifties discuss whether the "bread mix" on offer could also be used in a normal oven or only in a bread maker. I couldn't help myself and chirped in, and we ended up having a very friendly conversation about the lost art of baking bread.

I used to make a daily loaf in our bread maker (see my universal bread maker recipe here). This is an easy way to get started, although you may find, like I did, that a bread maker is not enough to feed a growing family. Plus, while the bread certainly tastes better than many kinds of shop bought breads, the texture really isn't all that great and more substantial kinds of bread don't always turn out so well, either.

I have since changed my method to making a batch of six loaves of bread in the oven. I have a normal sized fan-forced oven, not one of the super-sized ovens I have seen in some newer homes. Six loaves can just fit into my oven and can be baked at the same time which makes it an efficient use of energy. I have two heavy expandable oven trays that can be adjusted to fit the full width of the oven. I use one tray at the bottom and one in the middle.
I freeze the surplus loaves whole. They defrost easily on the bench top or in the fridge, or they can be defrosted (whole) in the microwave in about 2-3 minutes at high.

I start in the morning with making the dough. The most important ingredients for really good bread are baker's flour or strong flour (not the normal "plain" flour you may use for making cakes or muffins), yeast (I use dried yeast), water and salt. Baker's flour is a bit more expensive than plain flour but it makes a huge difference to the taste and texture of your bread - and it is still substantially cheaper than buying decent bread. You can add oil which gives the bread a nicer colour and keeps it from drying out too quickly.

This recipe is enough for two 800g loaves of bread.

* 1kg baker's flour
* 600 ml luke warm water
* 2 teaspoons of salt
* 1 tablespoon of dried yeast
* some olive or vegetable oil (around 2 table spoons)

* heavy baking tray (the heavier, the better, but if you don't have a proper tray, use your cookie tray instead),
* baking paper
* water spray can with clean water

Carefully mix all ingredients with a wooden spoon then put into an electric mixer with a dough hook for around five minutes or knead by hand (this can take up to 15 minutes) until the dough is all smooth and well combined. (Make sure your mixer can handle the amount of dough. I inherited a mixer which is probably around 40 years old. It is very heavy and can just manage the dough. By contrast, my smaller, more modern kitchen machine gets overwhelmed.)

Let the dough rise under a wet towel/ lid for about 4 hours until it has at least doubled.
Carefully push the dough back a bit using a wooden spoon. (Don't push too much, as we don't want to lose all the air the yeast has created already).
Let the dough rise a second time.
Carefully take the dough out of the bowl and divide into two parts. You don't want to knead the dough too much at this stage, just enough to form two even loaves.
Put the loaves on a sheet of baking paper large enough to fit onto your oven tray. Let them rise again under a wet towel.

Pre-heat the oven to hot (210 degrees Celsius). It is important that you put the trays you are going to use into the oven because they need to be as hot as possible when you put the loaves on. Once the oven is hot and the loaves have risen, quickly get the baking tray out of the oven, put the baking paper with the loaves onto the tray, push back into the oven and quickly give the sides of the oven a squirt of clean water with your water spray can.

Bake the loaves at 190-210 degrees Celsius (that depends on your oven - mine is ok using lower temperatures) for about 30 minutes. To test whether the loaves are baked through, knock on the bottom of the loaves. If it sounds hollow, they are ready.

Now you can experiment. I usually make at least two loaves with whole meal flour (800g baker's flour/200g whole meal flour works best for me, but you can use more whole meal flour if you wish), and two mixed sour dough loaves (800g baker's flour/200g rye flour, caraway seeds to taste plus some sourdough starter for taste and texture), and I often add other ingredients as well, such as sesame seeds, linseeds, pepitas and sunflower seeds.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's the soil, stupid.

It is hard to believe after the intense heat wave earlier this year that winter is almost upon us. The nice thing about living in this part of the world is that despite the very cold winter nights we can still grow a surprisingly large variety of winter vegetables. I started planting about six weeks ago. The first crop is coming along nicely - red and white cabbages, silverbeet, rainbow chard, spinach, bok choy, tatsoi, snow peas, broccoli and kale. Some of the plants, including the broccoli and some of the chards, are from my own seed!

The following picture was taken in late March after I put the first plants in. I have been experimenting with both direct sowing and growing seedlings in large polystyrene boxes for later transplanting. I have to say that so far, I have had more success with transplanting seedlings. It is easier to plant them out as I don't have to try to space the seed (which I am not good at) and I don't have to worry about seeds all pooling in one spot after a heavy rainfall or birds digging in the seed bed. The plants get "intensive care" for the first few weeks of their life and do well in the polystyrene boxes where they are a bit sheltered and receive good and even moisture. Once I transplant them, I can space them the way I want them - and I realised that a bit more space (but not too much) actually does help the plants grow better.

These pictures were taken early last week. I am pleased to see how much everything has grown!

Leafy vegetables need a lot of nitrogen to grow well and I put a lot of effort into preparing the beds.I noticed that the soil was in many areas pretty much devoid of life, apart from the odd beetle grub which I collected in a bucket and fed to the chooks. I dug up the heavily compacted soil and added masses of chook manure and created slightly raised beds about 1 meter wide, enough for four rows of plants. In addition, I have been feeding the plants with a mix of blood and bone, seaweed and cow manure, and I can finally see some real results: not only are the plants doing well, but now I find earthworms, too!

This time I also added a soaking hose so that I can water the plants some of the time without actually having to stand there holding a hose. However, winter crops need the odd watering over the top, particularly in areas with limited rainfall, as this will help reduce the number of aphids that simply love cabbages of all kind (most annoying!)

I have also dug up the 80m2 summer bed and put in a cover crop of mustard and clover for winter. The mustard helps fight various pathogens that may build up in the soil, the clover makes an excellent mulch once it dies down in spring/early summer. There are various ways of using a cover crop once spring time comes - you can either let the clover die down and plant straight into it, using the clover as a mulch, or alternatively dig the cover crop in and then plant the new seedlings.

A third vegetable bed with another variety of winter crops is also in preparation. Unfortunately, I don't have enough chook manure left to give it the same productive boost as with the first one, but I am planning to try regular top dressing with a mix of manure and straw and see whether that will work as well.